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3 Open minutes with Mark Andrew Junkin

Published on 29 February 2016

Progressive Dairyman contributor Mark Andrew Junkin recently completed his second book, Tough Times Never Last, Tough Farmers Do. Editor Walt Cooley spoke with him about why he wrote the book and why dairy producers might be interested in reading the book or listening to the audiobook version of it.

Q: Why were you interested in writing this book?

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A: JUNKIN: I think a lot of families don’t realize how much money they lose because they butt heads and pull the farm in different directions. And they also don’t realize how much money they are losing by not having the same vision as to what the future is.

First, I personally grew up in a beef operation that did not make money for 10 years. The day I left for college, my mother showed me the farm financials, and she said, “You’ve got five years to fix this or else I’m leaving your dad.” At the time I thought it was just as simple as going on and learning as much as I could at school and then bringing that knowledge home.

When I got back home, I wrote 18 business plans for our family farm. I think I even saw one of them go in the fire directly. I realized the key to success is not just coming up with good strategies but getting the mechanisms in place to not waste time and energy butting heads and instead get everybody pulling in the same direction and working together.

In the 10 years since, I was the guy my friends went to when they had problems working with their families. So I’ve been interested in business turnarounds and how to turn around farm businesses for years.

Q: How do you get families to start ‘pulling together’ and ‘working together’? 

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A: JUNKIN: What I try to do when I start working with a family is get on a phone call with them, usually at 7 a.m., for 10 minutes. We talk about what’s going on that day.

We plan what is on the schedule for today and what didn’t go correctly yesterday and how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again. We review what the decisions are that have to be made that day. That’s where I start off right away because often my clients cannot even have that conversation.Mark Andrew Junkin

Then we have a monthly meeting where I ask three questions:

  1. How can we make $5,000 out of this operation without spending $5,000?

  2. What is one way to improve how to work together?

  3. What are two to three areas that we just “suck at” related to production?

We then create a scorecard of the critical aspects of production.

These families I’m working with will often say, “We don’t have problems with our production. We have problems with communication and making decisions together.” I usually respond with, “Well, you know, instead of me coming in and getting everybody to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbayah,’ let’s get you to be able to talk about the pros and cons of using a new type of teat dip or how to solve a case of mastitis.”

After we’ve had a few monthly meetings like that, then we sit down and we talk about more strategic stuff such as succession planning or solving the big financial issues the farm is facing.

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This process of having daily and monthly discussions gets families used to being able to weigh the pros and cons of ideas instead of one person being the dictator. What I do is get grown men and women used to being equal partners in a family business and being able to make intelligent decisions on small things first before we talk about bigger issues that will affect the farm for 30 years.

Q: Do your clients graduate from having a mediator present at meetings?

A: JUNKIN: Absolutely. What we do is: We start off with daily, right? That goes for about two weeks. And when they can do that on their own, I’m involved in monthly meetings. Once they’re feeling comfortable with being able to have monthly meetings, we have a one-time family business meeting for the year. That’s usually a day-long meeting. By then, they tend to be able to do monthly meetings on their own.

My longer-term clients actually still have me back on a regular basis. They find that having an outsider forces them to actually have a meeting. Also, by having me involved, what the families have found is: It will force a person that is usually quiet to voice his or her opinion.

It also prevents the bigger blowups. That’s because there’s often one family member that’s dominant and two or three who are less dominant, and those individuals might not bring up their viewpoint to be submissive to the dominant personality, but then at some point they’ll snap because they’re passive-aggressive.

Q: One of the points you make in the book is the importance of passing over wisdom before assets in a farm transfer. Why is that important?

A: JUNKIN: There’s a lot of families where a young lad goes out and, as soon as he gets the assets, goes and does the exact opposite of what Dad said not to do and gets into trouble.

Equally true is that there’s a lot of family farms where Dad’s involved in decision-making until the day he dies, and then the son is suddenly stuck with the decision-making and feeling very overwhelmed. In my experience, I’ve found the more successful a farmer is, by personality type, the tougher it is for him to transfer what he knows to his sons and daughters.

And I also equally think I should say that there are a lot of parents that want the best for their kids, yet they don’t want to say no to them when they should.

Andy Junkin book cover

Q: So without giving away the entire book, what does a tough farmer have to do in order to be able to last?

A: JUNKIN: I think the tough farmer needs to realize that on a lot of family farms, we’re tough with each other. And we’re often butting heads and, as a result, there’s a lot of money slipping between the cracks.

And in order to be tough, what families have to do is work together as a team and be able to drive their costs of production down as much as they can. It’s the idea that having a culture of continuous improvement is absolutely critical to creating a tough farmer.

Q: In the book, you describe a ‘me-to-we mentality shift.’ How do you help farmers make that shift?

A: JUNKIN: Well, let me give you an example to illustrate this.

I had a farmer client we’ll call Jack. He was a narcissist. So basically everything on that farm rotated around him. The farm was not as profitable as it could have been, but he wouldn’t admit to any faults. When his kids suggested ideas, he just shut them down.

And so, with that farm, we got the process out and began having family business meetings once a month. Everybody brainstormed ways to improve, so it wasn’t the kids coming up with ideas and Jack seeing them as criticism, as Jack had done in the past.

I remember one of the first meetings was like an hour long, and 45 minutes were spent on where to place a water bowl for the cows. Jack was insistent it was in a place that really didn’t make any sense. Jack just simply had to get his way, and he didn’t want to admit that his kids had a pretty good idea.

However, a year later, after meeting with them, this same family bought another farm, and it only took a five-minute discussion. That would have never happened on that operation before our meetings started.

After they bought the other farm, Jack’s son-in-law called me up and said: “Did aliens abduct my father-in-law? What happened to this man?”

They’re getting along so much better now. They still have their days, but it’s amazing to see that once you get a process of continuous improvement and an understanding that ideas are not criticism of what Dad’s always done but rather just brainstorming about how to improve that mentalities begin to shift.

Q: What final words would you say to urge dairy producers to get this book?

A: JUNKIN: I think a big part of why they should read this book is to learn how to drive their cost of production down together as a family. I have used this on dairies and also in cash-crop operations to drive costs of production down by almost half within a matter of a few years. And I think it’s been proven successful.

If you can get everybody to agree to an absolute goal and then you get a process where you’re always brainstorming together as to how to reach it, and you’re not criticizing different partners, and you’re not criticizing what’s been done in the past, it’s amazing how quickly you can drive your cost of production down.   PD

PHOTO: Mark Andrew Junkin Tough Times Never Last. Tough Farmers Do. Photo provided by Mark Andrew Junkin.

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